If Carolina’s defensive players are ever frustrated at the lack of reciprocation from the offense, they don’t show it.
But after so many gift-wrapped opportunities handed to the Panthers offense – prime field position on silver platters dripping with extra sets of downs – it’d be hard to not be exasperated by a group that just.
Maybe one has to have the saint-like patience of veteran safety Kurt Coleman, who even wears eye-black crosses under his eyes and a cross around his neck during games.
“We lost the game because we didn’t get it done,” he said. “That’s been the moral of this year.
“I mean, look. The bottom line is that I can’t control what happens on their side. I’m not sittin’ in their meetings, I’m not goin’ over their plays. I don’t know what’s going on other than when you look at the scoreboard. But, you know, they’ve been hit with injuries. And it’s tough. … I think the great thing about this is, you got to love being out on the field, whatever the circumstances. And if they don’t score, they don’t win.”
He needed that patience Sunday, during Carolina’s narrow 17-16 loss to Tampa Bay.
Rookie corner James Bradberry returned an interception to the Buccaneers’ 16, after which quarterback Cam Newton and the offense went three-and-out and sent out the kicking unit. Which missed the field goal.
Then, defensive end Wes Horton strip-sacked Jameis Winston, and rookie Vernon Butler recovered. To which the Panthers’ offense responded with another three-and-out.
Carolina’s special teams even stepped up big, batting a kick that was ultimately recovered by young linebacker Shaq Thompson.
To which the Panthers responded with another field goal attempt by kicker Graham Gano.
Who missed the field goal.
Where the heck is the complementary football?
It has hardly shown itself this season, as the Panthers slumped to 6-10. A defensive resurgence truly occurred after the bye, when Carolina found its pass rush against Arizona and a few weeks later led the league in sacks. Young corners Bradberry and Daryl Worley went from each being a liability to each being a threat. A linebacker unit rallied around the loss of star Luke Kuechly. Against Tampa Bay, Carolina’s defense had a pick, forced a fumble (and recovered it) and sacked Winston three times.
“I thought the defense competed very, very well today,” said coach Ron Rivera, who added in his opening sentiments that he felt the team had missed several opportunities.
In fact, Carolina had given up only three defensive points until just over three minutes were left in the game. A late Winston touchdown pass gave Tampa Bay the go-ahead score and ultimately put the game out of reach.
A place where the Panthers defense certainly can improve is in the fourth quarter, during which they have been outscored 161-89 this season.
Linebacker Thomas Davis echoes that sentiment.
“We can’t allow teams to have anything,” he said. “We gave up a drive in the fourth quarter once again that allowed (Tampa Bay) to go down and take the lead and ultimately win the game. We have to do a much better job of playing a complete game as a defense.”
That’s a pro move, of course, to shoulder the responsibility. But it shouldn’t have to always be that way. Carolina’s offense should, at the very least, be able to put points on the board after turnovers. And it should be able to put points up during that final period – the Panthers were on a streak of four games without a fourth-quarter touchdown until Newton connected with Kelvin Benjamin with 17 seconds to play against Tampa Bay.
The defense can’t control that, of course – Davis said as much.
“We have a job, and as a defense it’s our goal to focus on what we can control. We go out there, we play hard and we compete hard,” he said.
So the next steps are to maintain and even improve the level at which this defense is playing, into next season. Coleman said that starts with re-signing free agent defensive end Mario Addison, who leads the team in sacks with 9 1/2, and free agent defensive tackle Kawann Short, who was able to go from a three-technique interior lineman to a six-tech on the end after Charles Johnson got hurt.
“We need to sign the right guys, bring back the right guys and draft the right guys,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know who is a free agent this upcoming season. But I would love to see something done with K.K. I don’t know where he’s at with that, but he’s a big piece of what we do defensively. And I think Mario. … Those guys had big years for us.”